(U.S. Senate) — During a joint Senate Veterans’ Affairs and Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today to examine the military to civilian transition, Chairman Jon Tester stressed the importance of improving the programs and resources available to servicemembers transitioning from military to civilian life, especially their mental health resources.
“We’ve improved veterans’ access to mental health access through the Hannon Act and the STRONG Act,” said Tester. “But recent data shows, that we’re not where we need to be when it comes to veterans mental health. We need to get more of these veterans into the system so they don’t fall through the cracks, and that transition process is an opportunity for it to happen.”
Tester continued: “89 percent of active duty deaths by suicide were among enlisted servicemembers. Across the active and reserve component those who died by suicide were primarily enlisted males under the age of 30. These are data points we need to take into consideration. If this population is struggling with their mental health while in service, those struggles are likely to continue and get worse as they make the transition to civilian life, and that is why this hearing today is so important.”
More than 200,000 servicemembers transition out of the military each year, and they are offered many critical programs and services through the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and Department of Labor (DOL), including the transition assistance program (TAP) and SkillBridge program.
Tester underscored the importance of DOD, VA, and DOL effectively working together to ensure that these programs have a positive impact on servicemembers: “I want to make sure during this hearing that you guys are talking to one another, and that we understand what’s going on with the folks retiring out of the military…There’s still too much red tape out there, and we’ve got to work to undo that.”
During the hearing’s first panel, the Chairman pushed DOD’s Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Ashish Vazirani on the Department’s efforts to improve TAP and identify why only 30 percent of transitioning servicemembers are starting the program at least one year in advance of their anticipated separation date.
Tester also questioned Vazirani on DOD’s work to expand servicemembers’ access to mental health care: “We have got a massive problem that has been around for a long time in the mental health with the folks that are [transitioning] out. And the statistics that I read in my opening statement show that this is really most prevalent in enlisted members. So do you have…any ideas on how we can make it better while keeping our numbers up in the military?”
Vazirani highlighted how DOD is currently implementing a congressionally mandated suicide prevention program to ensure the Department is a supportive environment, address the stigma around mental health, and improve the delivery of behavioral health care. He also mentioned how they are revising suicide prevention training to make sure military leaders understand the first signs of struggling servicemembers.
In the hearing’s second panel, the Committees also heard from Veterans and Military Service Organizations and other subject matter experts on ways DOD and VA could make improvements to better serve transitioning servicemembers.
A staunch advocate of improving the programs and tools available to transitioning servicemembers, Tester is leading the bipartisan effort to connect these men and women leaving the military with careers as U.S. Border Patrol agents through DOD’s SkillBridge program with his Veterans Border Patrol Training Act. The SkillBridge program allows servicemembers to gain tangible work experience and participate in approved training, internships, or apprenticeships while on active duty for up to 180 days before transitioning out of the Armed Forces.
Named for a Montana veteran who lost his life to suicide, Tester championed the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act in his capacity as the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to bolster VA’s mental health workforce and increase rural veterans’ access to care through alternative and local treatment options. Last year, Tester also championed the Support The Resilience of Our Nation’s Great (STRONG) Veterans Act to strengthen veterans’ access to life-saving tools like the Veterans Crisis Line, expand mental health care options, and support mental health research at VA.Continuing his efforts to improve veterans’ access to mental health and suicide prevention services, the Senator is spearheading the bipartisan Not Just a Number Act to require VA to take a more comprehensive look at factors that best prevent veteran suicide.